To talk about New Orleans heritage is to talk about food.
''We're an old city," says Susan Spicer, star chef of the New Orleans French Quarter restaurant Bayona. ''And we're more food-oriented than some other American cities because the cultures here -- the French and the Spanish, the African and Caribbean -- were food-oriented originally, and then you add the indigenous people and all the local ingredients, and it all makes sense. The food and the music go hand in hand."
Small wonder, then, that an essential ingredient of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, now in its 36th year, is food. Indeed, for many who attend the festival (which ends today but is already scheduled for next year on April 28-May 7, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day) dishes like pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo and crawfish étouffée are as much a draw as the music of B.B. King, Dr. John, or the Neville Brothers. In fact, for a good number of the sunburned fans who flock to the New Orleans
''Food has always been a major component of the culture," says Nancy Ochsenschlager, associate producer of the festival's Heritage Fair segment and a 30-year veteran of the event. ''And we've really kept the food here all very traditional New Orleans and Louisiana cuisine. That's one of the prides of the festival."
Just what that food is, however, may confuse some newcomers. For starters, blackened-spice mixes aside, the food here is not all spicy, Spicer points out.
''And nobody understands the difference between Cajun and Creole," she says.
As fellow New Orleans chef Frank Brigtsen explains, Louisiana food can be roughly divided into two distinct cuisines: country Cajun and the more refined city Creole of New Orleans. ''Creole is the original fusion cuisine," he says. ''You had aristocratic French and Spanish families, but they might have had African or Caribbean slaves using ingredients that they might have learned about from the Indians." He names dishes like rich oysters Rockefeller, invented at Antoine's.
''Cajun is really country food, French peasant food," Brigtsen says. ''From people who didn't have a lot of money, using very humble ingredients." He names one-pot meals, like gumbo. ''It's designed to make people happy."
In addition to these original cuisines, Ochsenschlager cites the influence of successive waves of immigrants from Germany, Italy, and more recently Vietnam, who all adapted local ingredients to remembered recipes. They brought in techniques for making sausages (like the rice-and-pork boudin), spices and ingredients (like the spicy olive spread in a muffuletta sandwich), and new ways of using local materials (such as crawfish spring rolls), all of which can be sampled at the festival.
''It's all of the various influences that have touched Louisiana since 1700," says Ochsenschlager.
But talking about food -- or even studying food as cultural history -- is not the best way to experience it. For that, the festival offers two distinct opportunities.
The first comes in the form of the two food demonstration stages. At these, which present back-to-back cooking demonstrations from roughly 11:30 each festival morning until 4 each afternoon, serious foodies can pick up tips and recipes, and everyone else can watch and then, when the lesson ends, taste. The smaller stage, called the Zatarain's Cajun Cabin, focuses on simpler, often country-style dishes, such as a seafood boil or the always popular alligator sauce piquante (which will be demonstrated by Mark Shirley of the Louisiana Alligator Farmers and Ranchers Association).
The bigger Zatarain's Food Heritage stage, in the race track's air-conditioned grandstand, features some of the area's best-known chefs. This year, Spicer re-created a recipe from Bayona: creamy oysters with leeks and bacon in brioche. Brigtsen, whose eponymous uptown restaurant has won a James Beard award for culinary excellence, demonstrated the making of crawfish shortcake.
''I like to share with people the traditional tastes and flavors of Louisiana food," says Brigtsen, who is quick to note that the state's abundant seafood, such as the miniature lobster-like crawfish, plays a huge role in regional classics. ''Like any great cuisine, Louisiana cuisine is based on great local ingredients. It's seasonal, and our cuisine respects that."
Those just seeking a snack -- or who don't have patience to watch as chefs chop up the traditional regional ''trinity" of celery, green pepper, and onion -- resort to the festival's food vendors. Sixty-six vendors were at the festival this year, offering more than 200 freshly prepared dishes. And all of these, as per the festival's mandate, revolve around Louisiana resources and traditions. That means 20 uses of fresh Gulf Coast shrimp, 27 dishes involving crawfish, and multitudinous other offerings ranging from the appetizer-like fried ''boudin balls" to desserts such as strawberry shortcake and sweet potato pie.
To the crowds who queue up for their softshell crab po'boys (a sandwich), this food is easy and relatively cheap; no dish costs more than $8. How that food happens, however, is a lot more complicated. Work starts around October, says Ochsenschlager. That's when her crew of approximately 50 employees and volunteers begins organizing what food will be offered at the four main food areas and at other smaller sites around the
''For the most part, everybody wants to come back" once they've joined the festival, she says. ''Even though it's a lot of hard work."
When someone does drop out, or the organizers decide to add a new item, the festival begins a give-and-take process with local chefs and caterers.
''The food department pretty much decides what it's looking for," says chef Patrick Gallagher. ''They've got very strict standards. And they've got some things here that would go well in any restaurant in the country." He had been doing demonstrations on the Food Heritage Stage for four years, showing off the recipes he creates for his restaurant Annadele's Plantation, in Covington, when he was asked to prepare some dishes for a possible vendor booth. That was four years ago, and although he sometimes tweaks his recipes, the dishes he now offers for sale -- a pecan catfish meunière, seafood mirliton casserole, and fried crab cakes with a smoked tomato-jalapeno tartar sauce -- all show off regional bounty.
What that regional bounty is can -- and does -- change. This year, for example, a new performance stage was added to highlight the parade music of brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians. So Ochsenschlager set out to find appropriate food vendors. The results would offer traditional African-American soul food, such as fried pork chop sandwiches and smothered chicken. A neighboring booth would offer a festival first: ya ka mein. Also called ''Old Sober," this noodle and beef dish supposedly came from returning Korean War vets. Nowadays, it's sold on sidewalk stands during the Mardi Gras season parades, and as its second name implies, ''it's supposed to be a great hangover cure," says Ochsenschlager.
For many of the vendors, the festival can become a way of life.
''Every baby I've had has been planned around Jazz Fest," says Peggy Miranda, who has four daughters and 22 years of festival experience. ''Each one planned so they'd be between zero and 3 months old, so they would sleep and I could work." She originally came to the festival to promote her catering business. These days, the festival is her primary customer, and her daughters are all learning the business.
''It's like a family out here," she says. ''We become a little community."
Because most of this fare is served outdoors, often under a broiling sun, attention to safety is rigorous. The festival trains its staff and volunteers in proper handling, and food monitors make constant rounds. Vendors and the city get involved as well.
''Everyone's got a thermometer in his pocket," says Gallagher. ''Nothing is allowed into the coolers unless it's the right temperature, and the health department is out here at least every hour. This is the best-run food and music festival in the world."
Clea Simon is a freelance writer in Cambridge.